A little too real

August 1, 2003

Bruce Landsberg, executive director of ASF, has only rarely created an emergency while training, either as a CFI or a pilot.

The whole idea behind realistic training is to prepare for a real emergency. Flight instruction is all about artificially creating experience so that when confronted with a real challenge, we are ready. In these dangerous times, military trainers operate under the motto: "Train like you fight; fight like you train." Surprise in combat or in flight is a bad thing. Make it as realistic as possible but don't injure the trainees more than necessary — there's always that balance.

This spring, the number of fatal flight instruction accidents, traditionally very low, jumped significantly. The AOPA Air Safety Foundation will address this through our normal flight instructor outreach efforts including "The Instructor Report," in AOPA Flight Training magazine, and in both live and online Flight Instructor Refresher Courses. But it seems appropriate to have a brief discussion here since pilots are on the receiving end of the instructional message and if something goes awry, you and the instructor will be arriving at the scene of the mishap at about the same time.

Instruction should be realistic enough to create experience without making it so real that a training accident ensues. Seems pretty obvious. Pilot and CFI should be constantly evaluating whether an actual emergency is being conjured up for training purposes. If whatever it is doesn't work out right, will there be damage to the aircraft or the occupants? That is the litmus test.

Engines don't quit without warning very often, not nearly as much as in times long past, but it still happens and so we practice. It also happens to be a required demonstration in almost every FAA practical test. The accepted technique for practicing engine failure is to reduce the power to idle. That way, if things don't work out as planned, you merely add power and proceed to sort things out. However, over the years a number of instructors have shut off the fuel to liven things up. It can frequently be done without the pilot's knowledge since fuel valves are sometimes located for the convenience of the manufacturer — out of sight and mind. The element of surprise is more realistic than pulling the throttle, and "startle factor" is what some CFIs live for.

Most of the time it works without any mishap and the pilot involved is impressed with the thoroughness of the CFI who has cleverly injected new realism into training. However, periodically the engine fails to restart and then there is a real emergency. If the landing is into an open field, chances are the aircraft will have to be trucked out with some minor damage — these days meaning something less than roughly $30,000. If there's a runway ahead and you're on the glideslope, good. But come up short, add in some obstacles, then it's time to significantly up the damage ante, and perhaps add in some injury as well.

Can real engine outs be done safely? They are a calculated risk, but I'll recount an experience in my training years ago. As a marketing and demonstration pilot for Cessna, I required a thorough right-seat checkout for obvious reasons. Demo flying is tough because you want to make the prospective customer look good in the aircraft while making sure that no damage occurs. I was checking out in the Cessna 310 and we had been carefully exploring the single-engine envelope. I asked the instructor how the aircraft actually landed with a prop feathered since the pilot's operating handbook mentioned something about using a zero-thrust power setting to emulate a feathered prop. The real engine out and the simulated engine out weren't quite the same.

The instructor took a deep breath and said, "OK, let's brief this because we will actually be shutting down an engine close to the ground." He clearly understood the risk and I was beginning to. We went to a small airport where there was little traffic and a long runway. The engine was secured and feathered at altitude, close enough to make the airport if needed, and we announced on the common traffic advisory frequency that this landing would be with an actual engine out. I won't bore you with all the detail that goes into a real single-engine landing in a 310, but the point was that everything was set up carefully in advance, including when to extend flaps, putting down the all-important landing gear, and determining the minimum go-around altitude. There was no startle factor or gotchas, and there was a very methodical approach to creating an emergency where the odds of needing to make a long explanation to the sales manager and the FAA would be minimized. It is the best way to handle an actual emergency as well.

Today, especially with multiengine aircraft, it makes sense to use the excellent simulation available from many reputable training sources. Engine outs can be practiced with impunity to include startle factor, heavy and hot conditions, low altitude, instrument meteorological conditions (IMC), you name it! Many old-timers will remember when the FAA required minimum controllable airspeed demos for training and checkrides back in the late 1960s. Many training scenarios became actual accidents as light twins were lost to exploring a dangerous corner of the flight envelope. The rules were changed and training accidents dropped significantly. The mishaps from real V MC incidents never approached the carnage created by instructors and examiners. The hard realities of pilot-instructor skill also run afoul of the need for training in spins and spirals. The Air Safety Foundation is putting together a major seminar program on maneuvering flight, the leading killer of GA pilots. The program will debut this fall for national viewing, and spins will be a part of it. The FAA dropped the requirement to demonstrate spins for the private pilot certificate in 1949. Because of improved aerodynamics and an emphasis on avoidance, the number of spin-related accidents has dropped significantly. It seems that many more pilots were killed in training than in nontraining (real) emergencies, just like the twin-engine accidents.

The Brits and Canadians, frequently held up as good examples of not caving in to aeronautical political correctness, likewise eliminated the spin demo requirement years ago for the same reasons. Before ardent spin advocates start the e-mail and letter campaign, allow me just a few more sentences. Spins at low altitude, where the vast majority occur (see " Safety Pilot: Spinning In," February Pilot), are not recoverable even with superb training. Let an aircraft spin at low altitude and it's over.

However, pilots can get excellent training in high-altitude spins and in unusual attitude recovery, not from the typical rank and file CFI, but from specialists in the business, such as Rich Stowell, Bill Kershner, Nancy Lynn, Sean D. Tucker, several collegiate flight programs, and many FBOs that have both the expertise and the proper equipment to explore that portion of the flight envelope safely. There is some additional risk, which is why, with the exception of CFI training, parachutes are required: Many of the aircraft have quick-release doors or canopies.

In flying with many student, private, and instrument pilots, I've tiptoed around the edge of teaching spatial disorientation in the aircraft. It's not easy to do safely. The pilot is usually asked to close his eyes and look down while the CFI does a variety of turns, climbs, and descents to induce vertigo. The pilot is then given the aircraft to recover. It's not very realistic but it won't get you into an unrecoverable situation either. The other way to do it is to let the "blindfolded" pilot put the aircraft into some interesting attitude. With retractables and other aerodynamically clean aircraft, we won't be pointed at the ground very long before the realism/risk issue starts to get out of hand. Unfortunately, that is just where the trouble begins when in IMC or at night.

There is a new simulator on the market, the GATT II, which does an excellent job of training spins, spirals, and all manner of disorienting maneuvers. It has a motion base with a visual system and does a fine job of scrambling your gyros — far better than any CFI can do in an aircraft.

You'll be able to see it at AOPA Expo 2003 in Philadelphia from October 30 through November 1. Simulation is much the best way to go in many corner-of-the-envelope situations, and you probably don't need to do it more than a few times to prepare for a rare but potentially serious encounter.

There are many scenarios that CFIs create, and we endorse the most realistic training possible, but remember that it's really nice to be able to use the aircraft again after the lesson.